Losing a child is a mother’s greatest fear. Women will do almost anything to protect their children, and trafficked women are no different. A mother’s love for her children is probably one of her greatest vulnerabilities to being trafficked. Mothers risk taking a job in another country in hope of giving these children a better life; they endure sacrifice and abuse to protect their very lives. It is often the photo of a daughter, the son’s voice on the phone, the hope of holding them in her arms again, that keeps a woman going night after night through the abuses of trafficking.
I met “Nina” late one night when I was on my way home from outreach. She was alone on the opposite side of the usual track standing forlorn in the drizzling rain. I reached out to her and when I asked if I could pray for her, she nodded and started to cry. After praying, I hugged her. As I walked away I turned to see her getting in a taxi. I hoped she was going to her room and not to a customer. I felt a wave of sadness for her as I walked home. I didn’t know her story yet, but the pain was evident.
I met up with Nina again this past week. This time her eyes sparkled with excitement. This night, we were gathering at the airport to pay her overstay penalty and to send her home. It had been two years since she was deceived and forced in prostitution in China. Expecting to work in a beauty salon, Nina had no idea that her beauty skills would be exploited to sell her body in prostitution. Typical of so many, when her visa expired she ended up stranded in Bangkok. Nina had saved up enough money to buy her ticket home but she had not been able to save up the $700 for her overstay penalty. Paulina (Iris partner) had also met Nina on the street and arranged for an interview. Jennie (NL) followed up and this night we were all celebrating that Nina was going home.
I knew a little of Nina’s story, but to make conversation at the airport while waiting, I asked the ages of her children. Nina gave me the ages of her oldest three, who would be meeting her at the airport. The light in Nina’s eyes dimmed and I knew what she was not saying – there would be one missing in the welcome. Nina’s youngest daughter was just 2 ½ when she died in March. She was only 1 when Nina left for this “job” to provide for her family. Nina had no idea when she left to pursue her dream that she would never see her baby again. It’s tragic enough that her baby died. It’s worse that this young mother could not be there with her little girl to say goodbye or to grieve the loss with her other children.
Women who are trafficked face more loss than most of us can imagine. We think of the abuses they suffer, the long nights of sex with strangers, the beatings, the hunger, the fear, and the risks. We calculate what is needed to rescue them from the horrors of trafficking and how to send them home. The women who are trafficked however, most often think about their children and their parents. The women do not fear the abuse they suffer as much as they fear what will happen to their children if they do not cooperate. They continue to work through terrible conditions to protect and to hopefully provide for their families. Nina did just that. She survived the abuses, the threats, and the debt. She was working her way towards a ticket home when the news came that her daughter had died. All her sacrifices had not been able to save her little girl. The money she had saved was stolen while she was grieving and she was stuck here in prostitution for an extra 6 months after her daughter’s death.
The situation of trafficking is complex and the consequences even more so. More must be done to prevent women from being trafficked. More must be done to help struggling families and single mothers so they are not so vulnerable. And when women have been trafficked and are forced to sell their bodies night after night, more must be done to provide a way out. More must be done to reunite these mothers with their children before it’s too late.
Just before sending Nina back home, we received a photo from another young African woman who had recently returned home. In the picture, the woman is holding her daughter in her arms. The little girl is smiling and her face is alive with joy at her mother’s presence; mother and daughter – together at last. As I returned from the airport after saying goodbye to Nina, the photograph came to mind. That’s the way it should be. Nina’s photo will not be complete but there will still be three children, at least, who will rejoice that their mother is home again. All of the hassles of late night outreaches, long interviews, paper trails, immigration challenges, fundraising, networking and early morning airport runs… if we ever doubt the work or wonder why we keep doing it, the photo of mother and daughter reunited is a sweet treasure to remind us that it is all worth it. The loss of another precious daughter reminds us that every moment counts.